Sunday, April 18, 2010

Gigi Goes to Ben & Jerry's: Part Deux!

OK, so I somewhat cruelly left you guys with a cliffhanger yesterday.

What does the belly of the beast look like?

Well, to be honest, we didn't go that far in -- and minus a glimpse of a rather spacious employee break room, what I know about it is limited to what we saw through the Hallway of Happiness and the standard issue conference room. But it's still Ben & Jerry's, so you know there had to be something good waiting in there, right?

Our gracious hosts had set up a rather long conference table that was laden with cups, wooden spoons, and oodles of napkins. (Bloggers can be a messy lot, what can I say.) After picking our spots to sit, two members of the Quality Assurance team came in and explained to us what it is that they do. The sheer amount of work that goes into every pint will blow your mind if you really put it all together. Putting aside all the steps the flavor had to take even to get to production, once it's on the line it is constantly being checked to make sure that it is the proper weight, texture, has the right amount of chunks and swirl, etc. Is the packaging perfect? Once it's out of the batch freezer (which is kept at a nippy -70 degrees F), at least once an hour a random pint is selected. It is cut open using a special machine that cuts it into four segments:

(Photo Courtesy of On Second Scoop.)

The segments are then checked to make sure everything is as it should be.

Under perfect conditions, everything is great and the batch goes out. If not, they have to retrace everything to figure out what went wrong, and where -- and believe me, they have got more charts and graphs and TPS reports than even the most hardcore nerd I know.

They also told us what it is like actually working on the line. All of the factory employee's are cross-trained and are moved around periodically to keep their minds fresh to the tasks at hand. All of this is great, but I know what you are thinking: "Gigi, when are you going to start eating ice cream?"

A good question. The answer is, right about now.

After our QA friends left (presumably to continue to do QA), we were treated to a buffet of ice cream. Some were the newly introduced for 2010 flavors, some were Canadian flavors, and best of all we got to try that day's freshly made flavors -- Cookie Dough and Americone Dream, fresh off the line!

Here is freshly made Americone Dream:

There is a reason everyone raves about ice cream straight off the line. Quite simply, it is THE BEST ice cream you will ever eat. Period. Because it has yet to be frozen, it is cold but very soft. Sort of like slightly wetter soft serve. And since it was my favorite of the two, we're going to talk about Americone Dream.

Again it's cold but not frozen, which allows your taste buds to not get as numbed as they would be by eating directly from the carton straight out of your freezer. The caramel is set, but still more fluid than it will be once hard frozen, and the waffle cone pieces are fresh off the iron.

The only way this flavor will never taste as good as off the line was (or could ever be any better) would be if they arranged for me to actually eat it off of Stephen Colbert himself...

Look, guys, I am just saying I don't think Stephen would complain...

Seriously, don't just take my word for it (or the other bloggers who are all gushing). Remember the pig buckets I told you about yesterday that the overfill goes into?

Andrew Zimmern (host of Bizarre Foods/World and all-around foodie) paid a visit to the factory last year on his Appetite For Life web series. Andrew being...well, Andrew...was of course shooting, and he was allowed on the production room floor. He liked the flavor he was sampling so much he continued right on eating it -- right out of the pig bucket! And when he was told what the bucket was for, he didn't care. His simple reply was "Dude, you have seen my show?" The thought of eating from the overflow bucket wouldn't have bothered me either if I was Andrew, but it has to tell you how good something is when people are even willing to eat the waste. Be sure to check out video of Andrew's trip to the factory here.

You can, by the way, recreate some of the "fresh off the line" experience at home: Either be patient and let the ice cream melt a bit, or microwave for 10 seconds or so. I have tried both methods. It comes close...not the same, but close.

After being spoiled for life on the Americone Dream, we tried some of the new flavors like Dolce Delish (review coming soon -- I have bought two pints since this trip, and oddly enough they never made it to review) and Boston Cream Pie (yes, also coming).

We also got a taste of the flavors of available to our neighbors to the north, such as:

Caramel Hat Trick is known in the U.S. as Triple Caramel Chunk.


Nous Sommes Indécis -- which I think translates into "Why isn't Stephen Colbert on the pint art?!" -- is actually the Canadian version of Americone Dream, which for obvious reasons needs to be renamed for the Canadian market. I did try some and I can tell you it tastes exactly like our version, only it's more polite and seems to really like the music of Céline Dion.

By the do you know you're in a room full of food bloggers? When your hosts tell you to dig in, and everyone reaches for a camera instead of a spoon! I can't tell you how nice it was to be in the company of people who actually joined in and didn't roll their eyes at me when doing so. It does in fact matter if you take your photos before you eat! But that is another rant for another time.

After consuming more ice cream than I normally would over the course of four reviews, it was time to head to leave the factory (but not before they gifted us with cool shirts) and head to the corporate offices. We of course helped clean up the sizable mess we'd made, and our hosts used this as an opportunity to show us a working example of how everything that can be recycled or composted at Ben & Jerry's really is recycled and composted.

On our way from the factory to the office, talk amongst us drifted to the new flavor in the lineup that we hadn't tried, but had all heard about: Flourless Chocolate Cake. At the time of our visit, this flavor had started to become known in the online food world as the "WalMart Flavor," and it was taking some heat for it -- as was Ben & Jerry's. To set the record somewhat straight, the flavor was not created especially for WalMart, nor is it limited to Walmart- although at the time of this writing they were the only major retailer actively carrying the flavor. If your local store of choice carries Ben & Jerry's, you can request that they order some for you. (Whether the store actually will is entirely based on your local store's policies regarding special orders.) In a nutshell (that I will probably crack with screwed-up facts -- so Aryn, Liz, Sean, or any blogger who took better notes then I did, please write in and correct me if I am wrong), there is essentially only so much shelf space out there. And while Flourless Chocolate Cake is a flavor that everyone at the company really seemed to like, there just didn't seem to be a place for it in the 2010 lineup. At the same time, WalMart -- which has more buying power and shelf space than anyone else in this quadrant of the galaxy -- stepped up and said (basically): "Hey, we'd like to have something special, and we can buy a lot of it." And that ended up being the best solution for everyone. The world (or at least the U.S.) got Flourless Chocolate Cake ice cream, and WalMart got to carry a product that people might want to make a special trip for.

The WalMart situation got a lot of discussion over those couple of days, and I am going to say now what I said then...hang on...gotta drag out my soapbox...

OK, better... I don't think WalMart in and of itself is inherently evil. I know that many, many people and websites will site countless reasons why I am wrong (and I am sure I am going to get at least 50 comments telling me how stupid I am for saying so). I am not saying I agree with all of WalMart's policies or actions. But I also can't say that about the companies that employee me personally, and I am willing to bet that a good 90% of you out there can't either. I know that many will say they don't go to WalMart because they kill small businesses -- but let's remember that if they are lucky, small businesses grow into big businesses. WalMart wasn't always the global giant that it is today. At one point it was a single store in Rogers, Arkansas, run and owned by a single guy -- and over the years it grew into something much bigger than its founder could have ever imagined....hmmm, you know whose story this sounds a lot like? (Granted, WalMart has not done a fraction of the charitable, community based, ecofriendly, etc. efforts that Ben & Jerry have.) My point is it's a tad hypocritical to point the spoon of judgment at one corporation for working with another -- especially when that company is part of an even bigger company (but we will get to talking about the relationship Unilever has with Ben & Jerry's later). I have a feeling that if this flavor had ended up at, let's say, Target rather than WalMart, there would have been a very different initial public welcoming. I think there would have been next to no backlash -- consider how many people make the pilgrimage to Target for the often exclusive candy offerings and soda they have -- and if anything, Target would have been the darling for once again getting something that no one else carried. Instead, the story became how Ben & Jerry got sucked into big evil WalMart's event horizon.

Instead of focusing on the perceived bad influence WalMart could have on Ben & Jerry's, perhaps people should look at the good that they have rubbed off onto WalMart -- after all, it's not as if this is the first flavor ever sold there. Ben & Jerry's will not use dairy products containing rBGH, and WalMart announced that it to was going rBGH free on March 21st of 2008. Ben & Jerry's have pledged to go fully Fair Trade on all of the flavors by 2013 -- and WalMart is at least starting to offer more options, such as Fair Trade coffee. Ben & Jerry are, as I mentioned in the last post, using only cage-free eggs -- and WalMart earlier in the year announced that it was going cage-free on all of its private label eggs. The world (and WalMart) didn't get the way it is overnight, but everyone needs a good example set for them...and maybe, one scoop at a time, Ben & Jerry's can do that for WalMart.

OK (kicking away my soap box), this got waaaaaayyyyy too serious for such a fun trip. I need a nap! Oh, did I mention that the Ben & Jerry's offices are so awesome that they have a NAP ROOM?!

That's right, and after I get a little sleep I will tell you all about it tomorrow!


Jim said...

Amazing post Gi. I have heard many amazing things about this place but you are really bringing it to life.

I wish I worked in the ice cream part of Unilever :( Keep this all coming - top class blogging!

Gigi said...

Thanks Jim!
Honestly I would still be there if they had let me stay!

You need to start reviewing chocolate ice creams- it could be you next!